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Eurasian empires: report on the final conference

The final conference of the Eurasian Empires programme took place from 15 to 17 June 2016 in Leiden. The conference concluded a five-year research programme in which nine researchers worked on their own specific projects within the programme’s Eurasian scope, transcending borders by bringing together the histories of distant regions.

Leading scholars in the field from all over the world as well as the project’s members gathered in Leiden for the occasion. Besides the contributions of renowned international scholars, the programme’s members either presented the outcomes of their research or took on the role of chair or discussant for one of the panels. Visitors were allowed open access and because of the considerable interest additional seats were required to accommodate everyone in Leiden’s medieval court of justice.

During the three-day conference, contributions were grouped in five themed panels:

1) Eurasian Empires: Perspectives
2) Dynastic Change and Legitimacy
3) People of the Pen
4) People of the Sword
5) Gender and Power

The panels encouraged discussion and comparison by juxtaposing papers of experts working on Eurasia’s different regions. The contributions showed that pre-modern empires, despite their cultural differences, faced comparable dynamics and challenges that deserve enquiry. This scholarly exchange therefore enabled regional experts to step back and change their perspective on the topics that they know best. Global history in this manner can help to raise new questions in otherwise isolated fields of interest.

Eurasian Empires: PerspectivesGülru Necipoglu delivering her keynote lecture

Professor Nancy Kollman (Stanford University) opened the conference with a paper about Russia as Eurasian Empire. She explored how Russia exemplified the theoretical model of ‘Eurasian Empire’ by analysing its governing strategies. Her paper demonstrated how Russia was able to govern its extensive empire with only a limited skeleton-like system of imperial intermediaries and elites. Her presentation was followed by a talk by professor Nicola Di Cosmo (Institute for Advanced Studies), who scrutinised the political and military strategies adopted by early Manchu rulers. These policies enabled them to construct and expand their power, paving the way for the foundation of the Qing dynasty.

The conference’s opening day also saw the first of two keynote lectures, by professor Gülru Necipoglu (Harvard University). She argued that the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires as well as the Uzbek territories should be studied as an interconnected interactional zone. Although these empires developed their own distinctive architectural styles by incorporating local and regional designs, they were still very much connected through mutual exchange. The ruling dynasties formulated their claims and dynastic messages through architectural projects that can be seen as part of a ‘Global Baroque’. The differences in their building programmes for palaces, mosques and shrines can only be understood in the light of their competitive claims for universal monarchy, that is in interaction with each other.

Dynastic Change and Legitimacy

The challenges inherent to the dynastic set-up of power were central in the second panel, which was held on Thursday 16 June. Professor Cemal Kafadar (Harvard University) discussed the violent competition for the Ottoman throne amongst the brothers of the ruling dynasty. Ottoman law sanctioned fratricide as a legitimate practice to resolve the issue of succession. The practice was finally abandoned under the pressure of public opinion in the 16th century, but remained present in European visions of oriental despotism. Competition for the throne among agnates was a universal concern. Members of the Eurasian Empires programme, Lennart Bes and Liesbeth Geevers (both Leiden University and Radboud University) analysed how the Habsburg, Safavid and Nayaka dynasties dealt with their collateral branches in order to ensure dynastic stability. Marie Favereau and Ilya Afanasyev (both University of Oxford), in their contribution, analysed the ‘familial’ identity of the Mongolian and Jagiellonian ruling families and proposed to take a more critical approach to the concept of ‘dynasty’, which historians too often use self-evidently. Jérôme Kerlouégan (University of Oxford) discussed the efforts of the Ming state to regulate the costs of the ever-expanding imperial clan. Imposing regulations on the imperial clan was one of the major challenges for Ming officials. The dynastic panel was concluded by Cumhur Bekar (Leiden University), member of the Eurasian Empires programme. He demonstrated how the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV carefully balanced his relation with grand vizier Fazıl Ahmed Pasha in order to retain power.

People of the PenGroup members Liesbeth Geevers and Lennart Bes during their presentation

After focussing on rulers and their dynastic families, the third panel was devoted to the officials and scribes who served them across Eurasia. Professor Hilde De Weerdt (Leiden University) analysed how a transformation in the production and circulation of information changed the self-representation of literati in Song China. Bureaucratisation can be observed throughout Eurasia. Malika Dekkiche (University of Antwerp) surveyed the position of secretaries working in the Mamluk chancery, showing how well developed the Mamluk administration was. Senior lecturer Robert Stein (University of Leiden) concluded the panel by analysing how, during the reign of the Burgundian dukes, a distinctive style of keeping accounts was developed and introduced in the exchequers of the various principalities of the Burgundian composite state.

In between the academic papers, a round table was organised by professor Jeroen Duindam (Leiden University), one of the Eurasian Empires programme leaders, in order to reflect upon the challenges of mentoring a research project that joins together several researchers. Walter Pohl (University of Vienna), Petra Sijpesteijn (Leiden University), Jo Van Steenbergen (Ghent University) and Hilde De Weerdt (Leiden University), all of whom are experienced leaders of joint research projects, were invited to share their experiences. A central point of discussion was how to deal with the freedom of the individual researchers to develop their own line of enquiry within the overall theme of a project. All agreed that in the humanities it is vital to allow researchers to develop their own projects, which poses a challenge for programme leaders who are required to formulate the joint thematic framework as well as the project’s research goals. Members furthermore discussed the complications of collaborations versus the benefits of having collective research aims. Petra Sijpesteijn made positive concluding remarks, stating that programme leaders have to reflect upon the challenges of mentoring, yet a collective effort can help individual research, making her look forward to future academic joint ventures.

People of the Sword

The fourth panel dealt with the powers that helped build, expand and sustain empires: the ‘people of the sword’. Walter Pohl (University of Vienna) explained how warband cohesion developed in Europe during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and compared this with similar tendencies in Chinese history. Remco Breuker (Leiden University) took us to Korea and analysed the influence of the Northeast Asian model of warband organisation during the 13th century. Reuven Amitai (Hebrew University) discussed how the next step in institutionalised military organisation helped the early Mamluk Sultanate to expand and build a new empire from Egypt up to the Euphrates river. Eurasian Empires programme member Barend Noordam (Leiden University) argued that the interaction between scholars and military men was crucial for Qi Jiguang’s successful military reform in 16th century Ming China and that this development revealed important parallels with Prince Maurice of Orange’s interaction with scholars and his military reforms in the Dutch Republic on the other extremity of Eurasia. Professor David Parrott (University of Oxford) discussed the tension between noble self-interest and loyalty amongst the army officers serving either Cardinal Mazerin or the Prince de Condé during the 17th century French civil wars known as the Fronde. Both concepts were central in Europe’s noble-military mentality, requiring the future Louis XIV to manage them adequately in order to ensure military success.

Gender and PowerJeroen Duindam at the conference

The fifth and final panel of the conference was dedicated to female power in Eurasian history. Female power was less typical, but still of considerable importance, ranging from women taking the paramount office to women assuming power as protagonists in the dynastic households. Senior lecturer Serena Ferente (King’s College London) focused on a range of female rulers from the house of Anjou in late-Renaissance Italy. She analysed how female political authority was represented in architectural works commissioned by female rulers. Senior lecturer Richard van Leeuwen (University of Amsterdam) analysed how the female element was represented in narrative texts throughout Eurasia. The suspicion of all female intervention in statecraft stood at odds with the essential role of woman in legitimising kingship. Luk Yu-ping (Victoria & Albert Museum) compared the women’s quarters at the Ming court with those at the Ottoman court, arguing that the term ‘harem’ brings problematic associations that rarely fit historical reality.

Professor Nicola Di Cosmo (Institute for Advanced Studies) concluded the conference with the second keynote lecture. In it he surveyed his experiences in collaborating with scientists outside the humanities, in order to try and determine the role of climate in the expansion and decline of steppe empires. Climate must have played a key role for the peoples that lived on the open plains of the steppe, yet written sources discussing this issue are rare. His research question therefore brought him into contact with paleoclimatologists who can help to determine temperatures in the past through dendrological research. Di Cosmo has worked with ethnoclimatologists as well, studying how climate affects contemporary steppe people. However, data is still very difficult to interpret, outcomes sometimes points in two directions and it remains hard to ascertain whether either warm or low temperatures led to imperial expansion – an argument can be made for either. More data needs to be gathered in order to draw conclusions. Although the work of researchers labelled ‘scientists’ immediately sparks broad media attention of which historians can only dream, the experience most of all shows how problematic so-called ‘scientific’ data can be. It helps one to reappraise the value of the written sources that we have. An encouraging endnote for the assembled humanities’ scholars.

Quinten Somsen, 22 June 2016

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